Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier
By Michael Murray
In this issue
- (1)“A month is a long time in politics”
- (2)The Full British Brexit
- (3)The Democratisation of the Labour Party
- (4) A word on the Conference debate on Palestine
(1)“A month is a long time in politics”
I know. A week is a long time in politics is what the man said. After re-reading the final paragraph of the last entry of this Diary, to get my bearings on the approach to the present one, I’ve decided to share it: to show how far we’ve come in a month.
“Following after Mike Gapes’ threatened resignation over anti-Semitism (Mail, 31/08/’18) coup number three has begun to take off with the weekend speeches of Gordon Brown and Margaret Hodge at the Jewish Labour Movement conference – and Emily Thornbury, independently – all deciding the original IHRA anti-Semitism definition, warts and all, must stand. Hodge (now on a fig roll) went further, declaring that even if the IHRA definition issue was resolved, that wouldn’t be enough. Jeremy Corbyn must go, she said, to applause.
And the terrible beauty of it is: the Right, milking the “anti-Semitic” card can seriously challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, without even having to mention his radical, and popular, social and economic programme – or own the 2017 Manifesto based on it which helped them all gain 1,000s of additional votes in the General Election. A veritable carte Blaire for a return to the way we were.”
And now, only a month later, a journalist of a paper often critical of Corbyn writes: “Could Corbyn solve Brexit and save Britain? I can almost imagine it now.” This, in a paper wobbly, to say the very least, in its support for him in the past. “It’s a strange thought,” he continues, summarizing the 2018 conference, “ but it may have fallen to Corbyn to save the country.” (Martin Kettle, Guardian, 27/09/2018)
This has been Jeremy Corbyn’s third conference as Labour Leader. And this foot soldier’s third successive conference, also, since rejoining the Party in 2015, having retired from Ireland to London the previous year.
The first conference, Liverpool, in 2016, was, in truth, a virtual coronation after Jeremy’s second successive leadership victory. Not that we felt like “subjects” – rather brothers, sisters and comrades. And that comradely feeling permeated the Conference attendees – and the host city of Liverpool. A reminder: the membership turnout for that contest was 77.6% and Jeremy’s share of the vote 61.8%. There was a temporary acceptance by the PLP “Corbynsceptics” of his legitimate claim to the leadership of the Party and it started all over again: the plotting against him – and the morale-sapping negativity. Then Theresa May called a snap General Election. The skeptics began to speculate on the election result and rehearse the arguments for why Corbyn would have to go in the aftermath of the expected Labour Party wipe-out. But, as we know that’s not how things turned out.
The Brighton conference, the following year, was off the chart as a celebration of Labour’s unpredicted, historic General Election performance. This year’s conference, back in Liverpool, was different. People came to Conference with trepidation, after a morale and energy sapping summer under extreme pressure from right-wing media, aided and abetted by a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Having shown all the signs of a likely split, or, at least, some high-level resignations the scene was set for a possible game changing Conference.
And, perhaps, history will show it as a game changer. Certainly, the thinking person’s media is already accepting that it is, as we’ve already noted. While The Express, The Mail, The Telegraph declaim the end of the world as we know it, Polly Toynbee of The Guardian opines: “Labour is winning the battle of ideas.” (27/09/2018). Some will permit themselves a wry smile as they remember the early stages of Polly’s “Anyone But Corbyn” stance. But that was then.
Sebastian Payne in The Financial Times wrote:, “Jeremy Corbyn is getting the hang of this leadership lark… (He) delivered his most accomplished speech yet … It offered a coherent analysis of the challenges facing the nation. It echoed the demands for radical changes. The prescriptions may be populist and anti-business … but it succeeded in making radicalism look like the new normal.” All this is said – and echoed in all the right-wing press – in the context of warning the Conservative Party to up their game at their conference next week if the challenge posed by Corbynism is to be headed off. Repeating a warning in a recent FT Editorial, Payne continues: “.. for now Mr Corbyn has confirmed he is in total control of Labour’s destiny. The Party is fully behind him. And judging by this week is fully convinced that destiny will soon be in Government.” (FT, 26/09/2018) That’s the “Heads Up” for the Tories from the Financial Times.
(2) The Full British Brexit
Martin Kettle, in the Guardian, in his summing up of Conference goes a long way to explain the significance of the key decisions reached in Conference – and the underlying process: “The important thing to grasp about the 2018 Labour Party Conference is that the two generalisations, Labour as Left Party and Labour as a broad church, have not yet become incompatible. … If the party of today was the fully Corbynised body that some claim, there would be little room or appetite in it for habits of pragmatism, compromise or experimentation. Yet there is still that appetite.” (Martin Kettle, Gdn 27/09/2018)
The “compromise and experimentation” of a larger, more participative and democratic party were seen in the way the highly divisive Brexit issue was handled. Faced with a flood of resolutions representing the whole gamut of opinion on Brexit, from a large section of Constituency Labour Parties – and trade unions, 150 delegates spent 5 to 6 hours reconciling, or, compositing if preferred, all the motions down into one to be presented to the floor of the Conference for a final decision.
Two days after that composite motion, Keir Starmer was at the Conference microphone. In the course of his speech on Brexit, hardly raising his voice, he intoned “If Parliament votes down the Prime Ministers deal, and if she can’t reach a deal … Labour must step up and shape what happens next…Our preference is clear. We want a General Election to sweep away this failed government. (APPLAUSE)
“Having swept them away we want to install a radical Labour government capable of transforming this country. And that’s what should happen after two years of (Brexit) negotiations ending in failure. But if that’s not possible, we must have other options, and they must include campaigning for a public vote.” (MORE APPLAUSE)
“It’s right that Parliament has the first say… But if we need to break the impasse our options must include campaigning for a public vote and nobody is ruling out “Remain” as an option.”
(LOUD AND PROLONGED APPLAUSE, in the old Soviet cliché) But veteran left- wing MP Dennis Skinner wasn’t clapping, I saw later on the televised clip of Keir’s speech, but few at the conference weren’t, it has to be said. His constituency, Bolsover, voted “Leave” by a whopping two and half to one.
Zoe Williams later wrote, “ Starmer committed to a second referendum with a “Remain” option on the ballot. It was all anyone wanted: not to erase the Referendum decision but to revisit it in the light of the disaster of its unfolding. (Guardian, 25/09/2018)
(3) The Democratisation of the Labour Party
Reselection and Party Leader elections was another area where the agreement and compromise of the new, enlarged Labour Party was severely tested. “The Left (Momentum) reined in by the unions” might be some people’s verdict. “One person’s negotiated compromise is another’s fudge,” might be another. There was also the growing perception of an over-weighted Trade Union vote vis-à-vis the Constituency Labour Parties vote in deciding policy. It told in the pre-meetings on Reselection, Party Leadership candidacy rules – and was also to be seen in the Brexit compositing process, the two biggest, and most controversial, issues before conference.
It remains an organizational issue going forward. But despite activists’ anger at a large number of MPs continuing to undermine the activists’ work for the Party by their maverick and disloyal conduct, it is probably better parked until we’re further down the road with Brexit, a possible General Election – and/or a “People’s Vote” on the outcome of Brexit negotiations. The point about the need for democratizing the structures has been made and members have attained an enhanced sense of, and commitment to, the kind of democratic structures, rules, structures and procedures a Democratic Socialist party ought to have. That organisation learning should not be under-estimated.
(4) A word on Palestine
Brexit and Reselection of MPs were the two big issues threatening to split the party at, or in the aftermath of the Conference. Anti-Semitism was another. When a delegate took the podium to support a resolution on Palestine and proceeded to bring the house down with a powerfully emotive speech I wasn’t ready for what happened next. Seemingly out of nowhere the now distinctive flags of Palestine appeared and were waved in the air by delegates and observers in their hundreds. It was an astonishingly well-organized display of support for the Palestinian cause from every section of the Conference floor.
In Haaretz, an Israeli paper which had reported the support Jeremy Corbyn enjoyed amongst Arabs and Jews in Israel the Conference display of Palestinian support was described as: “Empty gesture politics within a party tearing itself to death.” Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz, (26/09/3018.
In The Times of Israel, Richard Philpot, former editor of the “left of centre” Progress magazine, said the Labour Party has become an anti-Israel protest group. He writes: “ Nothing better illustrates Labour’s journey from credible party of government to a bastion of hard-left activism than the image of Luciana Berger, a Jewish MP who has led the effort to call out anti-Semitism in its ranks, accompanied by a policeman as she walked around the Liverpool conference.”
Now, the less said of Luciana Berger’s histrionics, the better.
Dan Hodges, ex Labour “centre left” MP, called the show of support for Palestine a taunt to Britain’s Jews to say to them: “We are anti-Semitic and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He continues: the Labour Party is the “political wing of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee” and the “anti-west and Israel-phobic Stop the War Coalition.”
The question is: why did this happen? I suggest it was a primal scream at the unfair and unjust venom aimed at Corbyn over a prolonged period; blatant psychological warfare against someone who stood up for peace and justice in the world, including Palestine. In one recent research study a database search was reported on Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism newspaper coverage.
In all his previous political life pre-May 2015 Corbyn/anti-semitism got 18 media mentions, and none accusing him of anti-semitism. After May 2015, when he became a contender for Labour leadership and future Prime Minister he had 6,133 newspaper mentions – and we know what that coverage has been like.
And I think some of the anger was directed at the NEC and others who foisted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism on the Party, with its conflation of an anti-Israeli political stance and anti-Semitism, instead of standing by its own Code of Practice, dubbed the “Gold Standard” of such thing by people who forsook it under, God knows, what pressure within the NEC.
I don’t know if I’m going too far with this if I add that it was also a declaration that the IHRA definition or its notorious “examples” of anti-Semitism had not better be used to suspend or expel members in the future. I’d like to think it was.
So, I would say the attackers of the “anti-Semite” Corbyn haven’t gone away, and aren’t going away anytime soon.
One point made by Pfeffer in his article, above, with which one would have to agree, is that Palestine was not discussed in the context of a focused look at Defence issues at conference. In many ways, against the background of the impact on UK defence of Syria, the Yemen, foreign policy debate was the elephant in the room. Pfeffer also has a point when he says a conference such as Labour’s in Liverpool should have some regard for how it is perceived by the outside world. Certainly, this spontaneous demonstration on the floor of the conference was a far remove from the stage-managed Labour conferences, of not too long ago, as you could get. But there is a real distinction to be learned, and made, between protest politics and truly problem-solving politics.
Finally, the last word from John McDonell, The “engine-room” of the new Labour Party. One of the big worries of Brexit and the on-going austerity cuts is that, in the event of a change of government, Labour would be handed a poisoned chalice which, in turn, as has happened in the past, lead to its being quickly voted out and left in the wilderness for years. In his powerful address to Conference he dealt specifically with this fear. “I tell you this (a favourite expression of his) the greater the mess we inherit, the more radical we have to be; the greater the need for change the greater the opportunity we have to create that change and we will.”
Fighting talk. And, judging from the mood of this year’s Conf, the foot soldiers are ready, willing, able and confident in the battle plan.